YARUB IKHDEH and his friends had been waiting half their lives to get on a bus. The six young men had never left Gaza, which has been blockaded by Israel and Egypt since 2007. They grew up in a territory where half the population is jobless and at least 70% rely on aid to survive. "We're all recent graduates in business and IT," says Mr Ikhdeh. "And we're all unemployed."
Gazans wanting to leave the territory have two main exits. Only a few may use the crossing at Erez, on the border with Israel. The rest are limited to Rafah. Poor relations between Egypt and Hamas, the militant Islamist group that controls Gaza, meant that it was largely sealed for years. Egypt opened the crossing for just 36 days in 2017. But since last spring, when thousands of Gazans started to protest at the border with Israel to demand the removal of the blockade, Egypt has loosened its restrictions. Last year the Rafah crossing was open for 198 days.
The change set off an exodus from Gaza, which has a population of 2m. Last year there were 60,900 crossings into Egypt, three-and-a-half times more than in 2017 (see chart). About 24,000 people seem not to have returned. There were another 33,000 crossings in the first half of this year. Some of those leaving, like Mr Ikhdeh, hope to find work in the Gulf. Others fly to Turkey and attempt the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe.
Emigration has long carried a stigma among some Palestinians, a people who have fought for generations to stay on their land. Hamas does not release statistics on emigration, lest they highlight how bad life in Gaza has become during its rule. But those leaving seem to be mostly recent university graduates. Youth unemployment is thought to be about 70%. Earlier this year the education ministry advertised 300 new teaching positions. It received 43,000 applications. Those who do find work are often stuck in dead-end jobs. "I've been at the same company for eight years and I only earn $250 a month," says Alaa Abu Aqleh, a business graduate also waiting to board a bus. That is half of what a low-wage job in Ramallah would pay, to say nothing of work in the Gulf.
Not surprisingly, doctors in Gaza say dozens of their colleagues have left in recent months. Apart from low pay, medical staff must cope with daily blackouts and routine shortages of everything from baby formula to cancer drugs. Worried about a shortage of doctors, Hamas has stopped issuing them with travel permits. A poll in December found that 48% of Gaza residents want to emigrate, compared with 22% in the West Bank. "Pessimism is spreading over every corner of this place," says Sameer Abu Mudallala, an economics professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.
Egypt still caps the number of daily travellers at around 300. A waiting list runs to more than 10,000 people. Young men in particular struggle to obtain permits because of security concerns on the Egyptian side. To jump the queue Gazans pay the tanseeq, or "co-ordination", a polite euphemism for a bribe. Brokers in Gaza collect it and distribute the money to officers in Egypt. (Hamas is also thought to take a cut, though it denies this.) Prices start at $1,000, almost triple the average monthly wage. Families sell land or gold to get their sons across. "It's ironic. The main issue, for a long time, was for Palestinians to return home. It was a dream," says Mr Abu Mudallala. "Now we're paying money to leave."